In a brief but fascinating column for The American Prospect yesterday, Mark Schmitt meditates on the relationship between reliance on ideology, and reliance on “experts,” in resolving public policy challenges. As he notes, Barack Obama has often been credited with, or blamed for, a “pragmatic” attitude about public policy that is reminiscent of John F. Kennedy; and it’s worth remembering that JFK’s technocratic approach to many issues led pretty quickly to a backlash from the ideological left and right.
As Schmitt also notes, the perils of rejecting expertise as illusory or as inherently harboring ideological biases has been amply illustrated by the era of conservative ascendancy:
We are still recovering from eight years of an administration governed by contempt for experts and facts, in which every problem could be solved with a political solution.
George W. Bush left us with a staggering set of questions for which political answers are elusive at best. Like Kennedy at Yale, Barack Obama has had to make the case that many long-held political truths, such as that the deficit shouldn’t get too high and that government shouldn’t intervene in the private sector, are actually ideological myths. In his March 24 press conference, he reiterated that his mission is not ideological but is marked by “knotty problems” such as how to “improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe.” Despite the fact that he is building what may turn out to be the most progressive presidency since Lyndon Johnson, Obama eschews ideology not just for tactical reasons but because it provides little guidance on bank bailouts, reviving the auto industry, dealing with international currency account imbalances, or shifting the whole economy to a lower level of consumption.
But at the same time, the financial meltdown didn’t particularly inspire confidence in “the experts” on a host of economic policy issues, and some of the same “experts” are helping guide policy under Obama. And thus, a conservative “populist” assault on Obama policies in areas like health care or climate change, where a little expertise is long overdue, has been joined by many voices from the left when it comes to financial policies, where perhaps we’ve had too much input from “experts.”
Here are the “two lessons” Schmitt ” derives from the Kennedy experience:
One is that the experts had better get it right. There is a huge political price to be paid for getting these technical questions wrong. The second is that, complicated as these questions are, “trust us” isn’t a good enough answer. The Obama administration must find a way to bring the public in, to let it feel a sense of participation and ownership. Ideology, in a measured dosage, can help people understand where we’re headed and why.
I’d add a third lesson implicit in the first: “expertise” is not just a matter of credentialing or prestige or peer approval; it’s ultimately established and then verified by correspondence to objective reality. When “experts” get something big wrong, it’s not time to abandon the whole idea of “expertise” or technical competence; it’s time either to get a new batch of “experts,” or to ensure that those who got things wrong understand their mistakes and adjust their views accordingly. Much of the intra-progressive debate about Obama’s economic policy team really revolves around the extent to which you believe some of its key members got very big things wrong, and/or have since adjusted their views.
As for ideology, I’m with Jonathan Chait: progressives do typically distinguish themselves from conservatives by being a “reality-based community” that can adapt its ideological predispositions to empirical results. And that’s true not just of economic or environmental or health care policy, but of politics itself–which is, after all, one of the founding principles of The Democratic Strategist.